26 December 2011

How We Got Here

Warning: This article will make you smarter.

The Making of the 99%

“Class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs.”   —E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class

The “other men” (and of course women) in the current American class alignment are those in the top 1 percent of the wealth distribution—the bankers, hedge-fund managers and CEOs targeted by the Occupy Wall Street movement. They have been around for a long time in one form or another, but they began to emerge as a distinct and visible group, informally called the “superrich,” only in recent years.

Extravagant levels of consumption helped draw attention to them: private jets, multiple 50,000-square-foot mansions, $25,000 frozen hot chocolate embellished with gold dust. But as long as the middle class could still muster the credit for college tuition and occasional home improvements, it seemed churlish to complain. Then came the financial crash of 2007–08, followed by the Great Recession, and the 1 percent—to whom we had entrusted our pensions, our economy and our political system—stood revealed as a band of feckless, greedy narcissists, and possibly sociopaths.
What gave the idea of a liberal elite some traction, though, at least for a while, was that the great majority of us have never knowingly encountered a member of the actual elite, the 1 percent, who are for the most part sealed off in their own bubble of private planes, gated communities and walled estates.   

[...] by 2000, and certainly by 2010, the class of people who might qualify as part of the “liberal elite” was in increasingly bad repair. Public sector budget cuts and corporate-inspired reorganizations were decimating the ranks of decently paid academics, who were replaced by adjunct professors working on bare subsistence incomes. Media firms were shrinking their newsrooms and editorial budgets. Law firms had started outsourcing their more routine tasks to India. Hospitals beamed X-rays to cheap foreign radiologists. Funding had dried up for nonprofit ventures in the arts and public service. Hence the iconic figure of the Occupy movement: the college graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debts and a job paying about $10 a hour, or no job at all. 

And here was another thing many in the middle class were discovering: the downward plunge into poverty could occur with dizzying speed. One reason the concept of an economic 99 percent first took root in America rather than, say, Ireland or Spain is that Americans are particularly vulnerable to economic dislocation. We have little in the way of a welfare state to stop a family or an individual in free fall. Unemployment benefits do not last more than six months or a year, though in a recession they are sometimes extended by Congress. At present, even with such an extension, they reach only about half the jobless. Welfare was all but abolished fifteen years ago, and health insurance has traditionally been linked to employment.
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The Occupation encampments that enlivened approximately 1,400 cities this fall provided a vivid template for the 99 percent’s growing sense of unity. Here were thousands of people—we may never know the exact numbers—from all walks of life, living outdoors in the streets and parks, very much as the poorest of the poor have always lived: without electricity, heat, water or toilets. In the process, they managed to create self-governing communities. General assembly meetings brought together an unprecedented mix of recent college graduates, young professionals, elderly people, laid-off blue-collar workers and plenty of the chronically homeless for what were, for the most part, constructive and civil exchanges. What started as a diffuse protest against economic injustice became a vast experiment in class building. The 99 percent, which might have seemed to be a purely aspirational category just a few months ago, began to will itself into existence.

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